An Illuminating History of 'Lite'

Over the centuries, English has lit upon many meanings
What to Know

In Old English, lite was used as a noun and adjective meaning “little.” In Middle English it was a verb meaning “to wait, expect,” and, later, “to rely, trust.” In the early 20th century, lite started being used as a simplified spelling of light (Auto-Lite, Kwik-Lite), and today it is generally used as an adjective in connection to food and beverages (lite yogurt), or to denote a harmless or unthreatening version of something.

With the abundance of commercial products available for purchase labeled "lite," the word is commonplace and generally accepted without criticism or, as is likely, without thought of its history in the English language. Centuries before being ubiquitously seen on store shelves and in freezer and refrigerator cases, it was read in medieval texts—however, with different meanings. The history of today's lite is a light read but its past homographs give it considerable weight.

two light beers on ice

Word history: tastes great, is less-filling

The History of 'Lite'

The first glimmer of lite occurs in Old English as a noun and adjective meaning "little." Medieval storyteller Geoffrey Chaucer was familiar with the uses, penning lines such as "And seist thou hast to lite and he hath al" and "And ever it wastith lyte and lyte away." Another lite begins to shine in Middle English, a verb meaning "to wait, expect" and, later, "to rely, trust." Here is an example of the "wait" sense from an 18th-century Englishman's diary: "calld at Boby and lited but stayed very little, calld at Grange, where lited, from thence came home about 4 in the Evening." An example of the "rely" sense is "He lited on her" (like rely, it is often followed by on). These homographs of lite have since been extinguished except in a couple of dialects.

Modern Day 'Lite'

In Modern English, lite takes on new meaning as a simplified spelling of light in some of its familiar noun and adjective meanings, beginning with its use as a word for a source of illumination. Usage evidence of such comes from casual writing as well as literary where it is often used in dialect:

Finally, an old lady arose and approached the man who saw the light; she was his mother, and she took hold of his hand, she exclaimed. "Och, ooh, Jammy, ir ye takin' l'ave o' yer senses? What do ye sa?" This but increased Jammy's zeal, and he jumped the faster, and cried the louder. Luck at the lite!
Brother Mason, Circuit Rider: Ten Years A Methodist Preacher, 1864

It is in the start of the 20th century that lite gains specialized use in the marketplace, appearing as a word element meaning "light" in commercial brand names. Early examples are Prest-O-Lite (an acetylene-fueled headlight), Auto-Lite (a spark plug), and Kwik-Lite (a flashlight). By mid-century, it is firmly established as an attention-getting equivalent to light, as both a noun and adjective, that people in marketing and advertising begin to exploit in their describing and naming of products. Nite as a word for night was also so used at the time especially in the names of nightclubs:

The band is hot and the drinks are soft at the "Hi-Nite Club," the reason city officials say juvenile delinquency is dropping in Spokane. The "Hi-Nite Club" is exclusively for youngsters of high-school age.
The Billboard, 4 Sept. 1943

Today, this "marketing" lite, along with light, is commonly attached to food or beverage items made with a lower calorie content or with less of some ingredient (such as salt, fat, or alcohol) than usual. Some examples are lite popcorn, lite ham, lite yogurt, lite salad dressing, lite juice, and lite beer. When used as an element in a brand name, it is often placed postpositively—that is, at end of another word.

Lite is also applied in the proper names of a wide range of non-food/drink products from technology, construction, cosmetology, etc., to convey that they are lighter or simpler in some way than the original version. For example, there are the space-saving Facebook Lite and Twitter Lite apps as well as lightweight joint compounds and hair products labeled, often postpositively, lite.

Besides modifying the names of commercial products, lite is used as an adjective in general meanings influenced by those of light. It can be seen or heard as a word that indicates a person or thing is a harmless or unthreatening version of someone or something. For instance, a U.S. president might be called "Roosevelt Lite" (referring to the 20th-century notable President Franklin D. Roosevelt) or a social system might be called "Communism-lite." Lite can also convey that something has less than the usual substance or value when compared to others of the same kind: e.g., "an action-lite movie climax"; "a science-lite explanation"; "a Conservative politician with Liberal-lite views." One final note: lite describes an easy-listening style of music, as in "lite jazz" or "lite satellite radio."

We think we have now met our promise to give a worthwhile, light read that is not exactly information-lite. Ah, if only learning something new was always so light and easy.